TRENTON – The Statehouse mood this afternoon turned sour, and in the words of some of her allies, cast a pall over her historic rollout as the first African American woman in the state’s history, when newly sworn-in Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-East Orange) abruptly called for a vote to appoint Steven Eellis as state auditor.
The call for action in the joint chamber following lame duck Gov. Jon Corzine’s farewell address, sparked surprise from legislators, and Senate Minority leader Thomas Kean (R-Westfield) objected to the motion, subsequently sparking a press corps feeding frenzy around the Republican leader and melting down smiles on the faces of a bipartisan leadership team that had otherwise been ceremonially buoyant all day.
Newly sworn-in Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D-Metuchen) interpreted Kean’s dumbstruck response to a procedural vote as counter productive.
“There’s a lot of rhetoric about working together in a bipartisan way, but this really poisons the well,” said Buono. “(The Republicans) blew a procedural issue out of proportion. It’s very disappointing. I’m offended that a procedural rule was used to try to embarrass (the new speaker). This can’t continue.”
Kean stood his ground.
“My objection was not about the individual’s qualifications,” said the minority leader. “My simple question was about procedure and why there wasn’t proper notice. Senate Majority Leader Buono and (Assembly Majority Leader Joe) Cryan agreed with me that there wasn’t proper notice. With all due respect, what was biting about asking for a point of personal privilege to ask what was going on? Mr. Eellis received bipartisan support in the past. He is a career professional who does his job well. This is not about that, it’s about 120 members of the legislature not being given any notice this was happening today.”
Kean said today’s outcome – jointly delaying consideration of Eellis until March 16 – was the proper one. Eellis will continue as acting auditor until then.
“The exact right thing happened in the end,” said the minority leader.
Buono pointed out that Kean sat on the commission signing off on Eellis, and so questioned his explanation.
But veteran state Sen. Ronald L. Rice (D-Newark) didn’t, defending Kean from across the aisle.
“To be quite frank about it, senators and assembly people weren’t aware of it, and I think it was a case of miscommunication on the part of both houses,” said Rice. “Tom wasn’t arguing, he was rightly raising a procedural issue. I didn’t know what was going on myself.”